December 2019 Newsletter.

The risks of intimacy and sexual relationships in early recovery.

The following is an attempt to explore the risks of intimacy and sexual relationships in early recovery. Admittedly, my focus is quite narrow, in that I’m exploring the role that new relationships play in contributing to relapse, and why addicts in early recovery should approach intimate relationships with caution. 

Relationships which may or may not include sexual intercourse, and could include such activities as heavy petting, very long dinners conversing about absolutely nothing, WhatsApp conversations until 4 a.m. and wistfully sighing at all hours of the day. In fact, any behaviour that you would associate with the glow of early romance or possible sexual gratification, where dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin all intermingle to create intense euphoric feelings.  As an aside, while addicts in early recovery do need healthy connections (as opposed to sexual) to prosper, they also need solitude to heal. Learning to be okay with just themselves.

Many of us seem to blindly adhere to the folklore wisdom emanating from the “rooms” to have no new relationships in the 1st year of recovery, without a deeper understanding as to the why such relationships should be avoided, and as to the why they often cause relapse. It’s worth noting that getting into relationships is in and of itself not problematic (this is in fact what most addicts crave in early recovery); it is more about what happens in the relationship, and the emotions that are triggered when things go sour, as they often do. 

In recent years, we have developed a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of addictions. That often the root cause of addictions is to be found in the dysfunctional family system. It seems that nurture trumps nature. I have found James Hollis’s musings in ‘The Middle Passage’ (1993) quite useful in this regard. He writes that with respect to childhood trauma, the nature of childhood wounding may be broadly categorised into two basic categories:   

  1. The experience of neglect or abandonment.
  2. The experience of being overwhelmed by life.

Hollis goes on to say that the primary influence of our lives derives from the parent-child relationship, and the child interprets the parent-child experience in three basic ways. 

  1. The child phenomenologically interprets the tactile and emotional bonding, or lack thereof, as a statement about life in general. Is it predictable and nurturing, or is it uncertain, painful and precarious? This primal perception then shapes the child’s capacity to trust.
  2. The child internalises specific behaviours of the parent as a statement about self. Since the child can seldom objectify experiences or perceive the inner reality of the parent, the parent’s depression, anger or anxiety (or abuse), will be interpreted as a de facto statement about the child: “I am how I am viewed or treated”.
  3. The child observes the behaviours of the adult’s struggles with life and internalises not only those behaviours but the attitudes they imply about self and world. Thus, the child draws large (erroneous) conclusions about how to deal with the world.     

You may be familiar with the core (distorted) beliefs that arise out of this childhood wounding or shame – “that I am essentially worthless” and that “no one would love me if they knew the truth about me”. Furthermore, in looking at the systemic nature of addiction, we conclude that these factors (childhood wounding/trauma and early parent-child relationship dynamics) can all contribute to create the fertile soil for soothing, calming (addictive) behaviours to take root. Hollis supports this by writing that in the face of abandonment – that is insufficient nurturing or radical abuse – the child may “choose” patterns of dependency and/or spend a lifetime in an addictive search for a positive “Other”.  Addiction is often about the search for the lost “Other” or, put in another way, a medication of the underlying angst as a result of toxic shaming. The “hole in the soul disease” we often refer to in recovery circles. 

What does this have to do with relationships in early recovery?

These early wounds and the various unconscious responses adopted by the inner child, are strong determinants of our adult personalities – thus often the adult (addictive) personality is less a series of choices than a reflexive often compulsive response to the early experience and traumata of life. The experience of abandonment is unconsciously replayed when relationships don’t work out, triggering unresolved hurt and the old reflexive response to medicate through familiar numbing addictive behaviours.

The two basic categories of childhood wounding – neglect or abandonment – and the experience of being overwhelmed by life, are often mimicked when entering (or exiting) new relationships. More importantly, in the addicts new found vulnerable sobriety, there is a (transcendental?) search for something to complete them, or to unconsciously alleviate the pain of early wounding. All of this huge expectation is projected onto the prospective partner, and when – as is the case – they can’t deliver, the old experience of abandonment or neglect is relived. This dynamic is of course compounded when both parties are addicts in early recovery, since they are probably both playing out the same drama.  I think it was Yalom that said, “You can’t do therapy with a client who is in love.” Perhaps that’s the same as saying that you can’t do early recovery properly when you’re in love/lust.

Here it helps to remember that the addict in early recovery is recovering from what we can call a “disease of feelings”. In other words, they have a diminished capacity to regulate and manage emotions of any kind. So, once again, the strong emotions generated by feelings of falling in love or chasing sex have in and of themselves the ability to trigger relapse. What increases the likelihood of this happening is when there is a total lack of awareness in the addict of this link. If the appropriate psycho-education is offered, the addict will no doubt be far more circumspect in matters of the heart and sex organs.

An addict whose primary addiction is of a process nature, (co-dependency, sex and love, eating disorders etc.) has often experienced an earlier (deeper) childhood wounding.  Having said that, all addicts have invariably a history of dysfunction in the realm of intimacy, and we need to bear this in mind. When addicts can explore past dysfunctional relational patterns, they stand a better chance of empowering themselves to make healthy choices about relationships in early recovery, and reducing the likelihood of relapse. 

To summarise – to effectively navigate relationships in early recovery and understand the link between relapse and emotions associated with intimacy, all early recovers should explore the following: the nature of early wounding which has contributed to dysfunctional ways of relating sexually or attaching in dysfunctional ways; how their various (reflexive) addictions or compulsive behaviours interact to promote relapse; the dangers of the intensity of the emotions generated by new relationships and falling in love, and; explore more appropriate and healthy ways to navigate matters of the heart – understanding that the key to  happiness and fulfilment is not in sex, love or romance, but in the deeper meaning to be found in the journey of recovery, self-love, and a healthy dose of solitude.